The Digital Custodian: Observing 20 Years of FESPA

It might seem a little incredible to consider that, less than two decades ago, FESPA was seriously considering whether there would be appreciable impact from the appearance of digital technologies, and if it would be sufficient to disrupt screen-printing exhibits at association events. The 1996 exhibition in Lyon saw a hint of what was to come, exacerbated considerably in Munich three years later and, by the time Madrid in 2002 opened its doors, it was pretty clear that ink-jet and related processes were here to stay.

By the time FESPA 2005 in Munich came around there had been an astonishing transformation in display print with a plethora of manufacturers from all over the world touting their ink-jet wares alongside the established screen-printing industry. This was soon to be followed by textile production, with alternative digital options for industrial and small-format processes also coming on board. It was clear that digital was here to stay.

Now, in 2013, the digital printing element is no longer the cause of any astonishment among FESPA visitors, many of whom were unwittingly relied upon to give first opinions on some of the so-called innovations which were revealed at former shows. Of all the ink-jet and related revelations that made their debuts at exhibitions during the past 15 years it is the fittest that have survived and become established elements of today’s production processes. The oddities never made it to market.

So this year’s FESPA seals the affirmation about digital print, not only in the wide-format sector but, also, in more specialist and niche areas where the versatility of ink-jet comes as a useful addition. As a process it has brought an element of convenience to production processes and, in some areas, it has deskilled the art of being able to apply colour and text to a substrate.

From an exhibitor stand-point, FESPA 2013 is the year’s main opportunity for launches of new and revised technologies with most leading manufacturers timing their latest products to coincide with the event. But, while many are trumpeting innovation, it is now generally accepted that what we see will be established processes that have been finely honed to make them more productive.

A good example is HP’s new Latex 3000 which follows on with the company’s latex chemistry but has been revised and modified into a high-end production unit. Similarly, EFI’s VUTEk HS100 Pro takes existing technologies and refines them, with additions, into a fast combination printer. Other announcements include Durst’s line of printers which has also been extended with the emphasis on speed and quality, and the latest Inca which concentrates on litho-like quality.

In many ways we can thank print-head advances for the quality developments we’re now seeing across the board, from Epson’s latest SureColor offerings that sit at the lower end through to the more heavyweight engines. Versatility under the bonnet is key to how inks are jetted onto materials, with variable droplets and greyscale technologies becoming intrinsic elements in many of today’s printers.

A key element in the metamorphosis of machines has been in the development of ink formulations with improvements to UV-curable chemistries being enhanced by LED curing, and mild solvents offering virtually odour-free environments. Manufacturers like Mimaki and Colorific are among those bringing to market products that claim to offer the best of both worlds. On the digital textile front, ink developments that move production away from acid, reactive and disperse/dye sublimation are now being realised with pigmented inks, such as Kornit’s NeoPigment technology which features in its garment printers and its new high-end roll-fed machine.

The principle of improvement is also apparent in finishing equipment, the most sophisticated being CNC cutting and routing tables that have evolved to offer far more than bit driven or laser options to include work-flow software that optimises material use. Today’s RIPs are also are advanced from earlier products, too, with capabilities that are beginning to blend with general work-flow software and the trend towards better colour management, JDF compliance.

A noticeable aspect of this year’s FESPA is in the apparently high numbers of third-party ink manufacturers and suppliers that are exhibiting. Unlike shows of yesteryear where we seemed to be inundated with Chinese alternatives, many of these after-market products are relatively local with companies such as Sun Chemical, Triangle, Nazdar and Bordeaux among those offering formulations that are intended to lure users away from their OEM suppliers.

So today’s ink-jet technologies are far removed from those of yesteryear in terms of performance and reliability. Where once visitors to FESPA viewed most things digital with an air of scepticism, the reality now is that digital processes have matured to become part of most people’s everyday production capabilities.

In an ironic way, considering its screen process origins, FESPA has become custodian, nurturing and promoting the digital printing industry through its regular events. At the outset this was a brave step but, now, it is accepted as the norm. And, although the wow factor has gone from ink-jet processes and their related technologies, there is a still a strong draw from the graphic arts and industrial sectors to learn about new technologies.

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